This year, I added buffers to most of the events on my calendar. So, if a meeting is supposed to start at 10 and it will take me 15 minutes to get there, I list its start time on my calendar at 9:45. Likewise, if I’m running a meeting that’s supposed to end at 11, but I want to be sure to write down some notes after it, I list the meeting’s end time on my calendar as 11:15. These 15 minute segments are called buffers, and they are supposed to ensure realistic transitions between events in a calendar.
Sounds great, right? The only problem is that my buffers haven’t survived their collision with reality. They are the first things I trim when I have to fit in another meeting, another commitment, another task. They are the first things to go when I’m trying to jam something into my calendar.
Which is kind of goofy when you really think about it. Removing buffers is like removing oil from your car. Eventually, the machine parts that keep the car running will grind against one another, creating friction, and ultimately, damage. Then the car breaks down when you’re in the middle of Iowa, and all you can do is stare at the corn fields and hope for a miracle.
In my experience, that usually happens to teachers and school administrators around February, long past the point when all buffers have been ground down to nothing.
Today I returned graded work for the first time to my new ninth grade English class. I always find this moment — a reminder of the somewhat (disappointingly) transactional nature of school — a little rough.
Before distributing the work, I decided to share a few minutes (roughly 8:29 – 13:00) of a podcast that Tim Ferriss recently recorded with hedge fund mastermind Ray Dalio. I asked students to listen to the segment and to try to figure out how it was related to the feedback process at school. My question: What does Ray Dalio, hedge fund billionaire, have to do with the feedback I have just put on your papers?
The podcast felt like a risk. I wasn’t sure how my students would respond to two men talking about investing*. But as soon as I heard Dalio’s Long Island accent and watched the students lean toward the computer speaker, I knew I had made a good choice. After I stopped the recording, the students instantly started talking about the importance of humility (which Dalio mentions) in improvement, how we should strive to convert mistakes into wisdom, and the fact that Dalio’s formula (pain + reflection = progress) seems valuable for the endeavor of being a student, both in school and out.
When one student looked up Dalio’s astronomical net worth and mentioned it to the class, another student said, “and he says he got there because he’s a professional mistake maker.” I think there’s a good lesson in there somewhere.
On Sunday, my daughter set up a lemonade stand for the very first time. She handled everything — buying lemons, standing in line at the bank to get change, making a sign — and ultimately made a small profit that included a two dollar bill. But heading into late morning on Saturday, I was more than a little bit worried about the endeavor because my daughter, being 8, seemed to think that a lemonade stand and homemade lemonade would appear at the simple snap of her fingers.
As I tried to explain all the steps involved, she lost interest and I became frustrated. I was facing a very typical teaching / parenting challenge: how on earth can I move what’s in my brain into the brain of my student / daughter? How can I help her to see what I know to be true?
That’s when I reached for my iPAd and handed it to her. I knew the tool would attract her attention. And, beyond that, I knew it would slow both of us down enough to help us do some real planning.
She opened Explain Everything, and we worked in one slide at a time to trace the process from ingredients to first sale. Because she had to draw almost everything, she had to literally visualize each step. By the time we were finished, she was fully in command of the 25+ steps it would take for her to turn her vision into reality. She took me by the hand and led me through the rest of the day, telling us where we needed to go and what we needed to do. By Sunday afternoon, she was ready to go.
I sometimes hesitate to pick up my iPad because I’m not fluent enough in the tools it offers to use it to capture my thinking. I admit that. But I have to continually remind myself that, as a teacher / parent, my thinking isn’t what’s most important. Whatever helps my student / child think best — understanding the problem she is trying to solve and her own agency in seeking solutions — is the tool I should try to provide. If I don’t do that, then I’m simply in the way, maybe even part of the problem.
In a one-on-one meeting today, one of my colleagues said, “I’d like you to hold me accountable for ____________.” Then we discussed her request and why she made it in the first place. We did some preliminary problem solving. And then I left the meeting and made a note in my calendar to check in with her about the topic in a future meeting.
A school or organization’s culture is really humming along when leadership and followership dissolve into something more like partnership. As the nominal leader in this situation, I felt great about discovering where to focus my energy and attentional filters as they relate to this colleague. By helping me to focus, she helped me to help her, which is what I want to do more than anything else for the people with whom I work. Therefore, she helped me.
Face-to-Face group meeting (3)
Face-to-Face, One-on-One meeting (5)
I tried to be the same me in every space, to offer the same value regardless of time, path, place, or mode. The trick, I’ve found, to doing that is to concentrate as much as you can on the person on the other end of the phone, Zoom link, meeting room, etc. Forgetting the medium is easy when you are really focusing on the connection that the medium makes possible.
In his newly enhanced newsletter, Dan Pink suggests a short column by Op-Ed writer Bret Stephens. It’s about writing — tips about writing op-eds to be precise. Here’s some of the advice that I think is worth keeping.
Cliches are bad. We know this. Stephens avoids the cliche in cliche bashing by comparing cliches to Velveeta cheese (for chefs) and noting that they are “indicative of the mental slop that lies beneath.” Ouch and indeed.
“If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.” Pink loved that sentence, and I’d add that it’s exactly right most of the time.
Stephens ends well, too: “I’d wish you luck,” he writes, “but good writing depends on conscious choice, not luck. Make good choices.”
I’ve read and edited a mountain of writing. Ninth grade essays on Lord of the Flies, college admissions essays, the writing of college students, graduate students, and high school administrators. I’ve read and edited stories from third graders and aspiring sixty-year-old poets. I’ve edited police blotters and high school literary magazines. The writers worth reading make conscious choices.
They use vowel-loaded words when they’re talking about rivers and hard consonants when they’re feeling upset or broken. Even if their choices aren’t great, the fact that they choose words carefully, consider sentence lengths, and wrestle with imagery and symbolism signals an acute resistance of automaticity and the urge to tell too much. They disrupt silence, in other words, reluctantly and reverently. Kerouac and Ginsberg were heroes to me once, but their “first though, best thought” method was, is, and will be . . . bunk.
I saw this “in the wild” today.”* ** ***
*The degree to which people can share their work processes today never ceases to amaze me.
**As a teacher, I love the just-in-time opportunity that this opens up.
***I also love the leadership instinct that’s present in this example. You can watch the the leader in the conversation emerge as she suggests the best way to connect, serving the present task by choosing the best tool at the best time.